Thursday, September 6, 2012

Complimenting Kids

A gal at Alice's TKD class today complimented my purse.  It is made with soda pull tabs and a neutral (but somehow soft AND strong) yarn I think might be hemp.  My response to her (without thinking) was, "yeah, I think its pretty cool too!  My Mom bought it for me."  Later, I realized, that despite the fact that I wasn't being conceited at all (I didn't make the purse, NOR did I choose it off a rack as somehow being totally my style or something) there are people out there that would say I should have just said, "thanks".  While those people are probably right, it brings up the subject of meaningful compliments - an important subject for any of us that spend a lot of time with kids to consider.

The reason I reacted as I did, is simply that I didn't hear a compliment directed at me, but a comment about the coolness of the purse.  Something the person who actually MADE the purse deserves to hear and say, "Thanks" to, not me.  This is how our kids hear things too.

Additionally, when we tell them they are smart, pretty, unique, creative, etc. they don't really hear a compliment for themselves after awhile.  They just hear a label they now have to live up to.  Heard too often, these types of compliments can create a lot of pressure AND a situation where kids don't rely on themselves to self-analyze.  Instead, the next time they ask, "is this okay?" or "Is it pretty enough?" or "Did I do it right?" and rely on the adults around them to say what is good or bad about each thing they do.

Instead, if we describe the actions that we admire or choices they made that are productive (or whatever) and describe them specifically, kids hear a compliment and fill that compliment in for themselves.  For example,  when Alice is working on Art instead of telling her how beautiful her artwork is, I might say something like, "I see you took the time to fill in _____ detail and the colors you chose play off each-other nicely".  As you can see, in this example, I am observing and remarking about her effort and complimenting her choice in colors - two things she has control over.  She might then respond with, "yeah, it is really beautiful.  Thanks Mom" (teaching how to take compliments politely is a whole other issue), but she isn't walking away wondering what it is that makes her artwork beautiful.  She knows that it is her time and attention to detail and her color choices that worked well for me in my viewing of the art and, even more importantly, she agrees with that.  Additionally, there is also no personal label here.  She made a choice to attend to detail in this instance but there is no indication that she IS detailed, "oh you are so detailed!  Great job!" that she now has to live up to in future art.

This thing about labeling is more critical than one might imagine.  When children see the thing they did as a choice they made rather than a quality they posses, it is a choice they can make again or not.  With the art example, Alice is still forming her style and maybe she doesn't want to be an artist that includes a lot of detail (or an artist at all but that is also another conversation).  Knowing that I liked the detail in this instance but not that SHE IS detailed is a tiny difference semantically, but a HUGE difference in what it really means.

Compliments like, "Oh, you're so thoughtful" or "Wow! you are precise" seem like helpful things to tell kids - but they set a standard that over time adds up to the child being more likely to believe they always have to be the label they hear most often.  Believe it or not, there are times when it is better NOT to be thoughtful, or precise.  Besides, it is a lot more freeing to think you can just be who you are in the context of the moment.  Wording these compliments as "Oh, what a very thoughtful thing to (do or say).  Thank you" or "Wow! making your measurements that precisely is a great skill to posses!" you are telling the child they are capable of the quality you have included, that you noticed that capability AND that you appreciated that capability.  The child will feel and understand the appreciation and admiration you are expressing fully and still be free to have a less-thoughtful or less precise moment the next day (which might be more appropriate for a new context anyway).

Now, here's the real deal.  THIS IS HARD to do consistently.  I've been practicing for many more years than just those I've had with Alice and still slip up OFTEN.

Hearing a more traditional compliment a few times (especially from strangers with whom she/he doesn't interact all that often and even you) isn't going to have any lasting or dramatic impact.
Hearing exclusively more traditional compliments (especially ones that are repeated frequently) from the adults with whom he/she interacts regularly can have a much more important impact.  With Alice, every effort on my part (and that of her Dad's and anyone else she sees regularly) can mean a great deal. The same goes for you and the kid/kids you care about most.

I've seen so many incredibly talented kids come through my classroom with serious hang-ups with anxiety, perfectionism and no real sense of how to self-analyze (and all with parents following behind constantly telling the kids how wonderful they are - seriously, a child is not amazing because they don't pick their nose).  You might say, "but the parents are trying to reassure them" - and I agree!  However, I'd also respond with, "which came first, the chicken or the egg? - the constant and inappropriate complimenting or the anxiety over the fear of not being perfect?"

As usual, my guess is that perhaps there is a little of both in the mix when it comes to the make-up of a perfectionistic, low self-esteem or high-anxiety kid.  Psychologists have found a number of key behaviors on the part of parents that can impact the outlook a child grows to have about the world around him/her.  At the same time, it is also true that some children are more prone to certain characteristics.  It is the parent's job to help kids overcome or at least moderate weaknesses and teach kids to use their talents and strengths to become independent thinkers and doers.

I figure I'll do what I can and hope for the best.  If you aren't already working on it, although it is a tough switch and will require practice, vigilance and persistence.  I promise, it is well - worth the effort in the long-term.

For a lot more information and specific examples for the home read this, (now rather old) book:
"How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.  My edition is from 1980, but I'm fairly certain there have been updated edition printed out there and the book SHOULD be fairly easy to find.  It is a pretty quick read as many of the pages have illustrations or worksheets to do.

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